Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol – Southbank Centre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Director: Alison Pollard

Book: David H. Bell

Music and Lyrics: Dolly Parton

Adaptors: David H. Bell, Paul T. Couch and Curt Wollan

For followers of the minor fan cult that seems to exist online for Dolly Parton’s 1989 film A Smoky Mountain Christmas, a reality check. This is a different story altogether – though it does re-use one of the songs.

Here, longtime Dolly Parton collaborators David H. Bell, Paul T. Couch and Curt Wollan have taken the story we all know about Scrooge, his greed, the ghosts and his redemption and plopped it into 1936 Appalachia. While they take care of the story, Parton writes the songs – most of them original but some already in the catalogue. It largely works, but it’s unbalanced with some odd narrative choices and isn’t fully convincing as the seasonal story of atonement.

The writers have also made some editorial additions to the story beyond the necessary adaptations to make sure this Victorian morality tale fits into 1936 Tennessee. Some are fun, others are just confusing. A key departure is Sadie’s rejection of Eben Scrooge’s marriage proposal on the grounds that he is only a worker in the town’s general store. This, we see, is what catalyses an immediate change in young Eben, leading him to close out relationships and start to lust after money. It changes the Scrooge character completely, turning him from someone who had lost his way and came to prioritise money over love to a Scrooge motivated by pettiness and revenge – a far nastier version.

There’s also an overemphasis placed on the Christmas Past section (leading to a compressed present, future and finale) which includes something amorphous about union busting with a mining company. He causes his former employer Fustbunch (a charismatic Minal Patel as the Fezziwig character) to get arrested, and then hustles Marley out of all his assets to enrich himself.

While the story is a little off, the truth is when you see Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol you’re there for the music, right? Out of 13 or so (with a few reprisals) there’s really only a handful of memorable tunes, sadly. The two halves only really get going a few songs in. In the first, the beautiful ballad-style song Appalachian Snowfall is where we see a glimpse of Parton’s songwriting skill (and the full capability of the cast here who all get involved) for the first time. Three Candles (a duet with the fantastic Sarah O’Connor as Scrooge’s sister Fanny and Danny Whitehead as young Eben) is a tender, emotional call out for a little bit of Christmas magic.

Familiar to Dolly fans will also be I’m Dreaming of a Smoky Mountain Christmas, which should be on every seasonal playlist, really. Then in act two the highlight is Down Home Country Christmas with the fizzing and joyful Danny Whitehead again, this time as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, his family and the company. Apart from that, the music is nice. It’s fine. There’s little Dolly Parton spark to it, and while there’s some interesting bluegrass and country styles it is neither enough to satisfy nor too plain to really annoy fans of the genres.

Whether it’s the auditorium, the technical side, or the arrangement itself, the first few songs are hard to grasp thanks to mushy audio. Sometimes the singing’s drowned out by an enthusiastic band, sometimes there’s just too much going on to pick up anything more detailed than a general tuneful sound. That difficulty in getting a hold of the production continues with the direction. Apart from the sung numbers or narration sections where it makes sense, there’s a lot of declaiming to the audience (Scrooge’s conversion moments that turn him into a good’un being a key example) which don’t quite flow. Combined with the editorial changes it adds up to an uncertain and unstable final package.

The angular set from Scott Davis barely changes (sometimes there’s a bed in it) and serves as a bank, houses and shacks, and a general store selling everything from moonshine to candelabras and candy. Lit up well by David Howe, it’s a fun backdrop for this story – descriptive and nicely evocative of the era.

With moments of great tenderness, solid set-piece performances with some of the musical numbers, and a few great tunes the production does have quite a lot going for it. But with more than enough alternate Christmas Carols around this year, it’s not clear why this one should be the version of choice for most of us, apart from curious Dolly Parton fans.

Runs until 8 January 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Isn't fully convincing

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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